“Short Term 12”, the tale of Grace, a twenty-something foster home supervisor navigating the struggles of life and work in that world, was born out of writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton’s own experiences working at a group home for at-risk teens. In it’s first incarnation, “Short Term 12” was festival darling in the form of a short. Fast forward a couple of years, and Cretton’s feature length screenplay for “Short Term 12” is selected as an Academy Nicholl Fellowship winner--a bit or recognition that came as great reassurance at point in time when Cretton said he was on the brink of throwing in the towel and moving on to a different project.
Now, five years after the release of the short that started it all “Short Term 12” is back in spectacular fashion as a feature-length critical darling. Cretton recently took the time to talk about the process of bringing “Short Term 12” to life, his incredible cast and what the future might hold.
Although the evolution of “Short Term 12” from a short to a feature is most easily described as an adaptation, Cretton explained that he had to think of the process in different terms. “When I originally started to adapt it, it was very difficult for me and the only way I could do it was to look at the feature as an entirely new project.”
“The main thing I did was change the main character from a male supervisor to a female supervisor, and that had a ripple effect that kind of transformed all the other characters and made it feel like a brand new thing,” Cretton said.
Cretton also explained that he found the process of expanding his story highly satisfying. “The short was primarily drawn from my own experience, and the feature was a combination of my experience and a number of other interviews that I had conducted with people who had worked at places similar to this for much longer than I did. It was a really fun process, you get to learn a lot more and hear so many more stories.”
As much as the insight of others helped Cretton to flush out the story, his main character, Grace, can still trace her roots to his experiences, while Nate, an incoming supervisor, was loosely based on Cretton himself.
“Grace was initially inspired by one of my supervisors who was working there when I was...on first impression, I thought she was very small in frame, she had a very soft-spoken voice and was seemingly shy, but when I saw her on the floor with the kids, she was an extremely strong person and demanded respect from the kids and also showed great respect for the kids,” Cretton said.
“Short Term 12” is an intimate film, the success of which hinges as much (if not more) upon the performances from the cast as it does on the script. Cretton shared the process of assembling his cast.
“It started off with Brie, we didn’t want to cast anybody else until we found our Grace, and Brie actually suggested initially that we take a look at John Gallagher Jr. I brought [ a lot] them on just from having a conversation with them, and of course looking at their reels got me very excited for them to play those parts. After speaking with Brie over a Skype conversation, it was just a no brainer. She just had so much insight into the character and was so passionate about it. It was extremely exciting for me to see how much she wanted to put in to the character. The same was true with John.”
“We had about three weeks of auditions [for the kids] and it was just a long, stressful event of watching as many kids as we could and finding the magical ones, and somehow we did. We ended up with one option for every character, but thank goodness that one option was always just perfect in my mind. If somehow the schedule didn’t work out for any of these kids I would have been screwed,” he added.
Cretton agreed with the suggestion that there was a bit of kismet in play to assemble his ideal cast.
“There was a lot of magic in the air. When I go back and think about the entire process through casting, and all the way through production, it’s scary to think about how many things had to happen for everybody to be involved,” he said. “I mean even Keith Stanfield, he didn’t come on board until really late because I couldn’t find him, and he was the one actor that I wanted the character carried over from the short film. I couldn’t get ahold of him throughout the entire casting process, and then finally...I think it was two weeks before production, he responded to an email I had sent and came down and auditioned, it was in my living room and [he] just had me in tears.”
The performances from the cast are not the only element of the film with such a ring of authenticity, indeed the environment that surrounds them feels singularly unique to this tale and to the players on screen. “That [the set] was an actual group home that had been shut down a few years prior to us shooting there. All the structures were the same. The space, the plexiglass and everything was already there, so we just had to redress it and make it feel lived in again,” Cretton explained.
When asked about a favorite memory from the set, Cretton recalled shooting one particularly poignant scene.
“For me personally, one of the more moving scenes in the movie is when Marcus gets his head shaved by Grace and Mason. There are a lot of moving scenes in the movie, but that one was extraordinary for me to shoot because up until that point, Keith Stanfield had been purposefully keeping distance from both Brie and John and the other kids. He wouldn’t interact on or off-screen with anybody that he felt like Marcus wouldn’t interact with,” Cretton said.
“That scene was the first time that any of us had seen Keith Stanfield or Marcus be so vulnerable. It was so extraordinary. It was just a very quiet moment throughout shooting that entire scene, and when we were done it just remained silent for 15 minutes afterwards while everyone just kind of recovered from shooting it. That’s a very special memory for me,” he explained, before adding, “and now after the movie is done, Keith is a really fun, wonderful, silly guy to be around. It’s been a really fun aftermath.”
Cretton said he doesn’t yet know what his next project will be. He is in the process of writing something new, but is also reading scripts from others, so what exactly is next remains to be seen. However, he did say that he knows what he’s looking for.
“I’m always after projects that I personally connect to on some level. So far the things that I’m attracted to seem in a line with the idea of characters who find themselves and find some kind of peace in the world, which can be difficult at times to do with another person. So a lot of the themes that are woven throughout “Short Term 12” and in my first feature (“I Am Not A Hipster”) are still things that I’m really attracted to.”
And though Cretton doesn’t yet know what will be his next move, fans of “Short Term 12” can hold out hope to see him reunite with members of the cast on a future project.
“Oh yeah,” he said of the possibility, “I fantasize about that all the time. I would love to work with any and all of them. If a project comes along that they would fit, I would jump at the opportunity.”